Ice Hockey: Britain complete 58-year circle: Today the British ice hockey team face Russia in their first appearance in a world championship since the 1936 Olympics. Steve Pinder reports

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The Independent Online
IN 1936, on an open-air rink in Garmisch, Germany, Britain were crowned Olympic, world and European champions, completing a unique sporting treble that has still to be emulated by any British sports team. So what has happened in the intervening six decades? Why is a once mighty ice hockey nation only now back among the elite?

This afternoon, Britain face Russia, the world champions, in Bolzano, Italy. Tomorrow they play Germany, followed by Italy, Canada and Austria.

British ice hockey was born before the First World War, with the Manchester Ice Palace the inaugural rink, but it took off in the 1930s. British teams, based at such London rinks as Queen's, Hammersmith, Bayswater, Golders Green and, outside the capital, Hove, Oxford and Liverpool, regularly played abroad or entertained European and transatlantic teams.

It was the latter who could probably best understand the accents of their hosts. The British game was played largely by Canadians, who, through birth or parentage, were also permitted to represent the 'old country'.

These imports were paid good wages, got to see a new country but, while impressive players, were never going to be good enough for what was the embryonic National Hockey League in North America. British-born players occasionally got a look in, but all too often were left 'riding the pines', as bench-warming is known.

Competitive ice hockey largely ceased during the Second World War. But the crowds flooded back afterwards. Wembley Lions and Monarchs, who shared the Arena, Fife, Ayr, Brighton, Streatham, Durham - all boasted teams largely staffed with transatlantic players.

There are various theories why the sport started to fade in the early 1950s - Canadian players were asking for more money than the rinks could afford; the entertainment tax was an intolerable imposition; television was keeping the crowds at home. Perhaps the truth is that fans who had been brought up on a diet of the best spurned a lower-quality, home-based product.

Rinks began recuperating losses with ice galas, rodeos, anything that might bring the punters in. The sport suffered. Harringay, Earls Court and Wembley all shut their doors and by the early 1960s competitive ice hockey in Britain was all but dead, the flickering light kept going by regional leagues and British players who not only trained at midnight but also played at the same time in front of friends and family rather than thousands. Britain still competed internationally but as the well of overseas-trained players dried up, so did the results. The nadir came in 1981, when, in Pool C and playing in China, Britain finished last.

But in 1982, the national league was revived, this time with teams restricted to three imports and, this season, wage-capped to prevent the richest clubs garnering the best players. And in 1988, after a seven-year absence, Britain returned to international competition in Pool D. They failed to win promotion, but the following year, with dual-nationals now included, Britain climbed out of Pool D. Last year, they qualified for Pool B. Britain won the gold medal, earning entry to Pool A of the world championships.

The British coach, Alex Dampier, defends his policy of naming 15 dual-nationals in his squad of 23. 'We can't develop a home- grown squad overnight,' he said. 'It'll take at least seven years, bringing in one or two British players each time. We must avoid relegation - with talk of Pool A being expanded from 12 to 16 teams and with the teams from the new Eastern bloc countries coming up fast, we can't afford relegation.'

One genuine British-born player is Nicky Chinn of Cardiff Devils. His four goals in the 12-1 win over Sheffield Steelers in the championship final at Wembley at the weekend, a record for the final, could hardly have failed to catch Dampier's eye - he doubles as the Steelers' coach.

Chinn, 21, is one of the country's finest young prospects, who made his international debut in the Olympic qualifying tournament in Sheffield last year. 'I'm still learning. I look at videos of myself three years ago and realise I couldn't skate,' he said. 'I think our strength will be our physical game - we harry, hassle and get the puck off the opposition rather than letting them keep possession. It's a style they hate. It may not be pretty but it wins games.'

(Photograph omitted)

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